In his partially autobiographical book On Writing (Scribner, 2000), author Stephen King admits that he was heavily into alcohol when he wrote Cujo (Viking; 1981). As a result, Stephen King’s Cujo lacks the true other worldliness that marks his best novels. Dog lovers will also be appalled at the description of the book’s title character – a gentle Saint Bernard that turns into a man-eating monster after getting bit by a rabid bat.
But still, a bad book by King is still better than a good book by most other horror and suspense writers, including Iris Johansen, Dean Koontz and Edgar Allan Poe. Stephen King’s Cujo offers some interesting tidbits for diehard King fans to discover. It’s set in a fictional town familiar to King fans, Castle Rock, Maine, the home for many King books, or is the town next door to the book’s action, as in Under the Dome (Scribner; 2009.)
King’s great characters are his core strength. Even if a situation seems completely implausible, readers will still keep those pages turning to find out what happens to the characters. Stephen King’s Cujo is no exception. There is a town maniac, a beleaguered cop and a young couple with a small son trying to keep going after the wife admits to an affair. Even though King claims to have been drunk while writing the book, he has some touches that makes a character seem more real than a real person.
Even the title character is fleshed out. His unusual name gives a slight hint at the dark weirdness to follow. Cujo was named after one of Patty Hearst’s kidnappers, who everyone called Cujo but was really named Willie Wolfe. Cujo’s white trash owner at first doesn’t seem to be capable of making the logical leap to name his dog after a kidnapper, but then nothing in Cujo is quite as it first appears.
The main downfall of the book is the plot. Anyone who has kept dogs or bothered to learn anything about rabies knows that no matter how rabid a dog is, they do not become a Cujo. Although the book at times hints at otherworldly forces at play (such as the son’s persistent fear of a monster in his closet) they never materialize. This teasing with the reader goes on for quite a bit of Stephen King’s Cujo.
A good part of the book is taken up with the wife’s affair, perhaps in an attempt to show which was the worse monster – the guy she has an affair with or Cujo. But these two plot lines never merge, as they would in most other King books. This is another annoying tease for the reader to put up with.
Another stumbling block is that many problems facing the young mother and her son in their showdown with Cujo is that it just wouldn’t happen today in the age of mobile phones. Modern readers have to keep reminding themselves that things like the Internet, standard air-conditioning in cars and mobile phones did not exist back in 1981.